In my first post, I discussed the tension in the heroine’s character between being able to drive the action of her own story and retaining her feminine nature. After establishing certain qualities of a woman’s feminine nature, we turned to examine the medieval heroine Rowena from the novel Ivanhoe, establishing that she failed to be a true heroine because she was too passive. We also established that the medieval heroine was almost completely defined by her sexuality. This obviously sucked for women, so the response that many women took in the next era in England was an “up yours” approach to the stodgy men who ruled in the Middle Ages. These women flaunted their sexuality. As Kathryn Norberg, a professor at UCLA, writes, “By disposing of her own body the prostitute challenged male domination and patriarchy at its very heart…she flaunted women’s sexuality. She publicly subverted the right of fathers and husbands to monopolize women’s sexuality.” The ‘sexualized’ heroine is a woman who finds her identity in embracing her sexuality rather than rejecting it, as the medieval heroine did.
I may as well be honest about my opinion regarding Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders. I hate it. The Old English slang accent and lack of coherent punctuation makes it almost impossible to read and I really don’t like the heroine. Moll Flanders is a common girl who comes to live with a rich family. One son of this rich family seduces her and then jilts her, and Moll ends up marrying the other son. They have two children, whom Moll abandons after her husband’s death. Moll then proceeds to make her way through life through prostitution and crime. She flits from one husband to another, either seducing them or tricking them into marrying her. She unwittingly marries her half brother, moves to America, discovers he is her half brother, and again abandons her children (and incestuous husband) to return to England.
There is absolutely no doubt that Moll perpetuates the plot of this novel. From the very beginning, Moll is determined to become a gentlewoman as she understands the term—a woman working for herself. This desire drives her to make independent and assertive choices and she always makes her decisions to get what she wants. She is anything but maternal, compassionate, kind, faithful, or virtuous. Besides her independence, there is absolutely nothing to recommend Moll at all.
I give Daniel Defoe credit for writing such a scandalizing heroine in the midst of a society still under the medieval influence regarding a woman’s sexuality. Defoe challenged accepted ideals at the time and offered a different path for women to take. This path, however, failed to take his heroine anywhere good. Moll’s decisions lead her from one unhappy situation to another, and it seems to me that she never actually achieves true happiness or peace.
Moll also never helps anyone. She is one of the most selfish heroines I have ever come across. She abandons her children, her husbands, her lovers, and her friends. She fails to impact any character in a positive way, and she leaves no lasting legacy of any value. I think Moll demonstrates the emptiness that a life of immoral sexuality leads to. Yes, she drives the action of her own story, but Moll fails to become a true heroine because she sacrifices an important part of her feminine identity. By rejecting virtue, Moll also fails to demonstrate kindness, compassion, and faithfulness to anyone, even characters other than the men in her life. Moll proves that it isn’t enough for a heroine to be assertive, she has to be kind and compassionate as well as brave.
For more on the heroine: